Why and How Obama Will (Probably) Approve Keystone XL

The test the president laid out for the controversial pipeline wasn't a prelude to rejecting it -- just the opposite.
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President Obama wipes sweat from his brow during a speech on climate change at Georgetown University last month. (Reuters)

Gazing into my columnist's crystal ball on a steamy summer day when many in the Obama administration have climate change on their minds, I see a decision coming on the Keystone XL pipeline on a cold December day when most people have holiday shopping on their minds.

Based on conversations with administration insiders, here's how I envision the final act of the long-running Keystone drama playing out:

Secretary of State John Kerry, who counts combatting climate change as one of his lifelong passions, will recommend to President Obama that he should not approve the pipeline, which would send 35 million gallons of oil every day over 1,700 miles from Alberta's carbon-heavy oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama will decide to approve the project, in large part because he will have secured commitments from Canada to do more to reduce its carbon emissions.

Obama will publicly repudiate Kerry, akin to how Obama publicly repudiated Lisa Jackson, his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, two years ago when she asked the White House to let her move forward on a stronger smog standard. On the Friday before Labor Day 2011, Obama announced that he was delaying the standard because of economic concerns.

At that point in time, Jackson endured as the champion for disenchanted environmentalists.

Sometime this winter -- I predict in December -- Kerry will play that same role when Obama decides to approve the pipeline.

The response from pipeline proponents, especially Republicans in Congress, will be jubilation. More importantly, approval of the project can only help, not hurt, Democrats up for reelection in 2014, including Sens. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Mark Begich in Alaska, who all support the pipeline and have more-conservative energy positions than Obama. But because the decision comes nearly a year before Election Day 2014, it will likely be old political news by the time campaigns kick into high gear.

The reaction from the environmental community, especially the grassroots opposition led by the Sierra Club and 350.org, will be loud and fevered. They will probably have lawsuits waiting in the pipeline (pun intended). But many environmentalists realize it's not the only climate game in town now that Obama has committed to clamping down on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.

"For us, the primary thing is to get the largest single sources, which is power plants, and control their carbon emissions," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me last week at Georgetown University while waiting to hear Obama give what was his most substantive speech on climate change as president. "That's the center of the plan. Now the next thing is to get it done."

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Amy Harder is an energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.

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